Page 1: Biography
Babich, Josip Petrov
Gum-digger, wine-maker, farmer
This biography, written by Michael Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
In 1916, in a windowless tin shed on the desolate gumfields of New Zealand's far north, the young Josip Petrov Babich trod grapes with his feet, fermented wine and opened a wine-shop. From that humble beginning has grown Babich Wines, a leading example of the family-owned companies of Dalmatian origin that have played a crucial role in the emergence of the New Zealand wine industry.
He was born Josip Babić on 23 October 1895 at Runović, Dalmatia, a part of Austrian-ruled Croatia known for its red wines. He was the son of Petar Babić, a farmer, and his wife, Iva Selak. There were no schools in Runović, but Josip learned to read and write from his father, who had become literate while serving in the Austrian army.
To escape economic hardship and military conscription, in 1910 Josip and his brother Stipan journeyed to New Zealand to join their three brothers, Jakov, Mate and Ivan, who were already toiling in the northern gumfields. Arriving in Auckland as a 14-year-old, unable to speak English and with little money, Josip at first worked as an errand boy and cook at a Dalmatian gumfields camp, before becoming a gum-digger himself.
In 1916 the Babich brothers planted Isabella vines and established a pocket-sized vineyard at Kaikino, north of Awanui. Three surviving glass negatives, with 'Kaikino Wineshop 1916' scratched on the plates, show a tin shed near the Babich homestead. Inside are a stack of barrels (the word 'Babich' chalked on their heads), copper jugs, syphon tubing, a funnel, bottles and a worn bottle-cleaning brush. For a £1 sale, Josip would sometimes make an 80-mile delivery trip on horseback, a dozen bottles of port slung over his saddle.
Babich was once prosecuted for selling two bottles of wine to a customer, when the law required a minimum sale of two gallons. When the police witness's evidence proved inconsistent, the case was dismissed, but Babich's lawyer, H. H. Ostler, urged his client to 'get away from this place. There's no future for a winemaker up here'.
In 1919 Josip Babich and three of his brothers shifted to land they had bought earlier at Henderson in west Auckland. At first the property was farmed jointly, but later it was divided between the brothers. A tall, strongly built man, Josip cleared the land, milked cows, grew vegetables and planted fruit trees – and established another vineyard.
Wine-making resumed in the 1920s, with Babich hawking his port and sherry in bottles, half-gallon jars and clay jeroboams of varying sizes around the streets of Auckland. For decades the family grew a variety of fruit, as well as grapes. The company's name, at first New Era Orchard and Vineyard, later changed to Pinot Vineyards, Northern Vineyards and finally Babich Wines. On 31 July 1929, Josip Babich married another Dalmatian immigrant, Mara Grgich, in Auckland. The couple were to have three daughters and two sons.
By the late 1930s most of Babich's income was derived from wine-making. Along with a five-acre orchard, he owned seven acres of Meunier, Black Hamburgh, Baco, Seibel and Albany Surprise vines. Each year about 3,000 gallons of wine were sold directly from the winery or delivered to customers throughout Auckland.
A Catholic, with a reputation for honesty and an even temper, Babich was heavily involved in community affairs, and from the 1930s to the 1950s was frequently on the committee of the Viticultural Association of New Zealand. He read widely and was a keen gardener, bee-keeper and amateur photographer.
By the 1950s Babich Dry White, Dry Red, Palomino Sherry and other wines enjoyed a small but growing clientele. Although he remained active in the company, during the 1950s Josip passed responsibility for its day-to-day running to his two sons. When the wine boom gathered momentum in the 1960s, the family seized the opportunity, investing in a major expansion of the winery. The 1970s brought the emergence of Babich as a nationally distributed producer of quality, award-winning table wines, the 1980s saw the development of several export markets, and in the 1990s there was heavy investment in premium Hawke's Bay vineyards.
One of the grand old men of New Zealand wine, Josip Babich died at Henderson on 22 August 1983. He was survived by his wife, Mara, who died in 1994, and his children, three of whom were involved in the family winery. During a period when New Zealand wines were not highly regarded, Josip Babich early won a reputation for his well-priced, consistently sound wines. After several decades of steady, controlled growth, the company he founded is still family-owned and operated, and ranks among New Zealand's leading wine producers.